Books: Hoarse whisperers forbidden

Animals take star parts as top actors read spoken-word tapes for children. Christina Hardyment applauds them

ONE OF the recurring delights of children's audio books is the number which are read by top-flight actors, actresses - and even poets. But what makes an actor of Robert Powell's calibre accept a commission to read Alan Garner's books for children? It can't be the money. "It was a happy combination of his own love of the books, and Alan Garner's enthusiasm for him as a reader," says Stella Paskins of HarperCollins. "We were very lucky to get him."

Powell certainly gives Alan Garner's Elidor, The Owl Service, The Moon of Gomrath and The Weirdstone of Brisinghamen (each c.3hrs, Collins, pounds 8.99) everything he's got. I found that these abridgements allowed the imagination to range more freely than the recent fine, but necessarily visual, television version of the books.

Rik Mayall reading Dr Seuss's zany, pop-eyed children's classics was, says Paskins, another labour of love. It is also a match made in heaven. Parents listening to The Lorax and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish Blue Fish (both c.12 minutes, HarperCollins, book and tape pounds 6.99) will appreciate how cleverly thought-out Dr Seuss's internal rhymes are for starter readers. Mayall thoroughly enjoys the insane and rumbustious logic of such rhymes as "in yellow sox/I box my Gox/I box in yellow/Gox box socks." As usual, Side 1 is read to the accompaniment of bouncy sound effects; Side 2 has no sound effects and an end-of-page "ding" to guide young readers.

Also for younger children, Roger McGough gives considerable added value to Nick Butterworth and Mike Inkpen's pretty and perky but somewhat bland tales of Year 1 (Sports Day, School Trip, both 12 mins, Hodder, book&tape, pounds 7.99). Again, side 2 is for learner readers.

Comfortable, humorous and wholesome, June Whitfield is a perfect granny substitute for the increasing number of families with career-bound grandparents. She makes the most of the vivid characterisations in two new Dick King- Smith stories, Clever Duck and The Swoose (2 hrs, Cavalcade, unabridged, pounds 7.99). In classic King-Smith style, they are both about intrepid little animals keen to escape from the rut of farmyard life.

Margaret Mahy's stories always sound well on the ear. The Horribly Haunted School (2 hrs Cavalcade, unabridged, pounds 7.99), read by Richard Midgeley, is no exception. Plenty of larger-than-life characters and a neat twist at the end will ensure that six-to-10-year-olds enjoy the undoing of the ghastly Sogbucket, the nastiest of the teachers in the Brinsley Codd School for Sensible Thought, by the streetwise and ghost-aware young Monty.

Tintin without the pictures seemed unthinkable. But, in fact, the BBC's release in spoken word form of an eight-year-old radio dramatisation of Herge's inimitable Tintin (c.3hrs, BBC, pounds 7.99) works very well indeed. You appreciate Herge's characterisation better for being led through the stories, rather than glancing through them. In the part of Snowy, Andrew Sachs is of course the star of the show; Captain Haddock, though uncredited, is also quite splendid.

New and modern life has been breathed into an even older classic by a BBC dramatisation, again a radio spin-off. J Meade Falkner's Moonfleet (BBC 1hr 30mins) is a Treasure Island-like tale of a young boy who becomes embroiled with smugglers on the coast of Dorset. The sound effects are at times somewhat hammed up, but the story grips the listener as tightly as Captain Hook's claw.

Elisabeth Beresford's new adaptations of the television series of The Wombles (each c.15 mins, Hodder, book and tape pounds 7.99), read with aplomb by Kerry Shale, are also bound to prove popular. The books are illustrated with stills from the TV series, and the music and sound effects are excellent.

The many addicts of Gabriel Woolf's superb, privately produced abridgements of Arthur Ransome's books will be pleased to hear that he has now released his fourth: Swallows and Amazons (6 hrs, pounds 13.50 (including p&p by mail order from K Adams, tel: 01203 592231). The first three were Pigeon Post, We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea and Winter Holiday. But why didn't he start with the first in the series? His reply was arresting. "Frankly, I don't think that it's the best," he told me. "It has a very staid beginning, until the Amazons turn up. So I decided to start with my own favourites."

Finally, lots of people moan at the gutless content of the modern school history syllabus. Nicolas Soames has done something about it. His Famous People in History (2 hrs 30mins, Naxos, pounds 8.99 tape, pounds 10.99 CD) puts the names back into the subject with thrilling, very well- researched tales of British derring-do. An intelligently chosen collection, its heroes include Columbus and Nelson, Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, Queen Elizabeth and Anne Frank.

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